February 27, 2005

Bill Thompson, Creative Commons, and "Moral Rights" in Copyright

I'm always astonished when something I write is read, and has any impact at all. Recently "BBC World Service programme Go Digital" commentator Bill Thompson wrote a criticism of Creative Commons:

There will be no winners if we do not sort out copyright, argues columnist Bill Thompson. But let us not forget moral rights.

He brings up certain fairly obscure provisions of copyright law, called "moral rights". Now, these have absolutely nothing to do with how the words might look to someone unfamiliar with the issues. They relate to very minor aspects of copyright, not concerned with economics, mostly having to do with identifying the author, or in a few special cases, a right to prevent certain uses even apart from fair use. They're practically non-existent in the US, but slightly stronger in a few European countries, notably France. However, the words "moral rights" sound like "morality of property right" to many people's ears, so those set off the automatic reactions generated by such a topic. I believe what's going on here is a problem with people's conceptions of copyright. "Moral rights" as a colloquial phrase describes how people naively think about copyright, rather than the overwhelming economic bargain system. So the issue can be a kind of proxy for the mismatch between people's naive abstract concept of copyright law, and its reality.

Bill Thompson then criticized Creative Commons licenses, for supposedly not taking the "moral rights" copyright provisions into account. Though the underlying complaint was apparently more about the entirely different topic of why he felt compulsory licenses were against his conception of the morality of copyright property rights.

Anyway, with a certain amount of trepidation, I wrote up a message noting possible misunderstanding of the "moral rights" aspect copyright, and sent it to an old United Kingdom mailing list about cyber rights to which I happen to still be subscribed, where I wondered if a few UK lawyers might weigh in on the topic. Lo and behold, Bill Thompson was a member of the list, and sent this clarification of his views (reposted here with his permission):

From: Bill Thompson
To: cyber-rights-UK[at]cyber-rights.org
Subject: RE: Creative Commons, "Moral Rights", UK law
Date: Sat, 26 Feb 2005 19:12:21 -0000

Following what Seth and then Nicholas have said, I'd try hard to argue that the BNP using anything of mine to support any of their positions was inherently derogatory - but I think Nicholas is right, that I'd have a hard time.
My problem is with blanket/compulsory licensing of content rather than fair dealing - which would require some criticism/comment attached to the use. After all, I've been quoted approvingly by a Tory MP in Parliament (over the problems with e-voting) and I didn't object to that. I recommend Larry Lessig's recent post, at
for anyone who wants to know more - it's a useful clarification, and makes his (and, I would reckon, the Creative Commons) argument a lot clearer. It also makes me a lot happier with what they are doing.
Still asserting my moral rights where I can, though.

Maybe some misunderstandings will now be fixed, and I will have done some good in the world.

[Discloser/disclaimer: This post deliberately outright avoids engaging certain aspects of the various articles, since I am an ant among elephants.]

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in copyblight | on February 27, 2005 04:49 PM (Infothought permalink) | Followups
Seth Finkelstein's Infothought blog (Wikipedia, Google, censorware, and an inside view of net-politics) - Syndicate site (subscribe, RSS)

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